The emperor of all macronutrients to conquer healthy aging realm, expert predicts

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - iammotos
©Getty Images - iammotos

Related tags: protein absorption, Protein, protein bars, healthy aging, protein hydrolysate

Protein will play an ever increasing role in healthy aging, an expert in the subject says.

Robert Wildman, PhD, has founded his career on researching and implementing ingredients for functional foods and dietary supplements.  He’s the principal at Demeter Consultants as well being the chief science officer at Post Active Nutrition brands, which includes Dymatize, Power Bar, Premier Protein and Supreme Protein. In addition Wildman, who holds a PhD in Human Nutrition from The Ohio State University, is an adjunct professor at Texas Women’s University.

Wildman’s career has focused primarily on sports nutrition.  But as the boundaries of that genre have blurred, more companies are looking for new opportunities at the margins. 

 First it was trying to attract the active nutrition consumer who wasn’t laser focus on her deltoid definition.  Now, Wildman says, both marketplace shifts and new research data is driving a move into healthy aging.  There’s an opportunity now for erstwhile strictly sports brands to attract a set of consumers they might not have even considered 10 years ago, he said.

Wildman said there’s been a sea change in how nutritionists look at healthy aging.  In years past it had been more of a reductionist approach, trying perhaps to wean consumers away from profligate practices of their youth, whether it might be bad habits or less than ideal foods as a way to extend their healthy lifespan.

High protein foods once seen as cardiovascular nemesis

The big killer was always cardiovascular disease.  Getting rid of the biggest, lowest hanging fruit—smoking—seems to have been mostly accomplished. At least the vast majority of consumers can be said to now be fully aware of the risks. At the same time, in the mid ’90s when Wildman was just wrapping up his academic training, health care practitioners went looking for smoking guns in the diet.

“When we really focused on lowering the risk of heart disease, we started removing some of the most protein dense foods from the diet. We told people to stop eating so many eggs.  We started removing red meat.  We were talking about limiting dairy,”​ Wildman told NutraIngredients-USA.

“We were maybe misunderstanding relationships between some of the protein dense foods and cholesterol levels.  We were maybe too focused on disease prevention and not enough on health promotion, but we knew what we knew at the time,”​ Wildman said.

Wildman said protein is unique among macronutrients because it has so many variegated and critical functions within the body.  If you were to list the ingredients of the human body as you would on a food label, water would come first, followed by collagen, and other proteins and fatty acids. Everything else, even the much ballyhooed billions of commensal microorganisms, would be listed in the long string of fairy dusting smidges at the end.

This developing understanding of the critical importance of protein led to a resurgence of the ingredient that has coincided with the lion’s share of Wildman’s career.

“The 2000s were the decade of protein, and I’d say now the 2010s have been the second decade of protein,” ​Wildman said.

“I don’t thinks we’ve seen a macronutrient that has this kind of staying power.  The emperor continues to reign.  It’s different from its macronutrient brethren because of its structural and functional properties.  Carbohydrates don’t boast that kind of power in the body. By and large they are fuel.  Fatty acids and dietary fiber are important, but not like protein,​” he said.

Need for protein only increases

Now as more research accrues about how to best support people in their 70s, 80s and beyond from a nutritional standpoint, protein is coming to the fore for this group.  Wildman said it has now become fairly well understood that rather than harping on this group to lay off the bacon and eggs, more ways have to be found to help them get more protein.

That’s easier said than done, Wildman said.  As people age, the efficiency of nutrient uptake naturally declines.  Older individuals start to exhibit what’s called anabolic resistance, which is a diminution of the amount of muscle protein synthesis for a given stimulus, whether that’s ingestion of a big dose of protein, a session of weight bearing exercise, or both.

“You start to see an increased risk of sarcopenia, which is a reduction of total muscle mass and strength.  That leads to an increased risk of falls and injuries from those falls.  And that’s not to mention the impact it has on people emotionally, when they can’t move around with confidence any more,” ​Wildman said.

Opportunity for plant-based protein development 

While the reasons for anabolic resistance are many and varied, one way to deal with the issue is simply to pile on more protein and let the metabolic chips fall where they may.  But high dose protein beverages and functional foods can be difficult to make palatable for some older consumers who might be eating less as a rule.  That’s why Wildman said there’s an opportunity for product development to cater to this group.   

The key is getting the balance right for leucine, which is the most important amino acid from a muscle protein synthesis standpoint.  The move in the marketplace toward more plant based proteins could complicate that a bit, Wildman said.

“Leucine tends to be higher in animal-based foods than in most plant proteins.  So if you had a base of 100 grams of animal based protein, you might want to go for 110 grams from a purely plant based source or maybe even a little more,”​ he said.

Wildman said there are also absorption challenges for plant based proteins, but with the drive supplied by the market demand, these are getting sorted out.

“We are starting to extract out the factors that inhibit digestion.  Stomach acid, digestive enzymes and transporters on the walls of the small intestine all come into play,” ​he said.

“The plant protein supply chain 10 years from now will be much more highly developed that it is today.  You are going to see better and better ingredients from the plant based world,” ​he said.

“I think hydrolyzed plant proteins will be very helpful in address the absorption and bioavailability challenges for this aging group.  But of course we will have to show this all as researchers,”​ he said.

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